Sports | Jared Nelson
Quarterback Tom Keefe readies himself for the snap. Keefe replaced injured Erik Peterson in the third quarter against Wartburg.| Photo for The Clarion by Drea Chalmers
Last Tuesday, junior quarterback Erik Peterson was among a host of Bethel football players honored by the MIAC with postseason awards. Sixteen players from the conference champs were first or second-team selections, and Peterson took home the most coveted individual award in the conference: the Jim Christopherson MIAC Most Valuable Player Award.
Heading into their second-round NCAA playoff game, Bethel expected Peterson to lead them past the Wartburg Knights for the second time this season. However, when Peterson went down with a shoulder injury late in the third quarter of a tie game, it was Tom Keefe’s turn to lead the high-powered offense.
Keefe came off the bench and filled Peterson’s cleats admirably, inheriting a 14-14 tie and completing nine of twelve passes for 148 yards and two touchdowns, leading the Royals to a 34-27 win in dramatic fashion.
Certainly Keefe wasn’t expecting Peterson to get hurt, so the senior had to come in cold off the bench and onto a big stage. His first snap resulted in an 18-yard strike to a streaking Jared Schultz on third down and Keefe said that allowed him to get back to his instincts and settle into a groove early.
“I didn’t have much time to think about it, which was a good thing,” Keefe said. “[The coaches] called for a down-the-field pass and Jared was open and that helped me get into a rhythm.”
Late in the fourth quarter, Keefe found himself on his own 35-yard line with 3:11 on the clock and the score tied at 27.
"When you start playing football, this is the situation you dream of being in," Keefe said of the final offensive drive. "You know when you're in your backyard, it's a big game, time is running down, and you have to make a big play to win the game."
Keefe did just that, engineering a 65-yard scoring drive capped by a swing pass to Brandon Marquardt out of the backfield who ran 24 yards for the toucdown with just over a minute remaining.
The Royals’ defense stopped Wartburg five yards short of the goal line as time expired to secure the win and help Bethel advance to face North Central College of Illinois as one of just eight teams remaining in a 32-team tournament.
Peterson’s injury will likely sideline him for the remainder of the season, so Bethel will rely on Keefe at the helm to get the Royals back to the final four, a challenge that head coach Steve Johnson said his senior quarterback is ready for.
“He’s the quarterback who stayed,” Johnson said. “He hasn’t started a game yet, he’s a senior who stayed in the battle and he kept getting better and better. Next thing you know he’s right there when you need him, and that’s big.”
Johnson isn’t the only Royal that has feels comfortable with Keefe under center, as senior wide receiver Jared Schultz echoed the sentiment of his coach.
“We have confidence in Tommy and he’s a confident guy all around,” Schultz said. “We had those reps in practice all week so it’s not like its that new. We could just pick up where we left off [with Peterson].”
Despite the abundance of praise from his teammates and coaches, Keefe is quick to acknowledge the importance of the team in the victory, as well as its importance in the games that have yet to be played.
“Having receivers that can catch and guys that can block helps me remain poised,” Keefe said. “We had a lot of guys step up and we finishing down the stretch was key.”
Despite single-digit forecasted temperatures and a negative wind chill for Saturday, the Royals will host North Central at Royal Stadium in what will be their last home game of the season. Kickoff is scheduled for noon.